Monday, March 12, 2007


I've decided to start this blog to chronicle my exploits as an evangelical atheist. For a long time, I've held my views privately and thought that the world would be a better place if we all respected each other's beliefs. You know, a sort of "live and let live" attitude based on mutual respect. Recently though, I've changed my mind. Yes, everyone has a right to his or her own beliefs. I don't think many people would argue with that. Unfortunately, as I've recently become aware, not all beliefs are created equal.

Beliefs are all well and good-- everyone has to have them-- but we start to run into a problem when we ask ourselves why people have them. Religion and other "belief systems" fulfill a fundamental human desire to explain the world we find ourselves in. It can't be denied that we have an innate need to explain, classify, and understand the things that we see. Traditional religion is, at its heart, an attempt at such an explaning how humankind fits into the cosmos. The trouble is, most mainstream religions are thousands of years old, and their explanations stand up as somewhat lacking by modern standards.

Take the biblical account of creation given in Genesis, for example. Thousands of years ago, it made a lot of sense to posit that God created the world in six days. After all, everything else people saw around them (pots, huts, roads, cities, etc.) were all man-made, so why not have one great Creator ultimately responsible for all of it? Surely, at least from their point of view, something could not spring out of nothing. There must have been a creator.

Of course, we now have a lot more information about the development and formation of the world. Radioactive isotope dating techniques show us that the world is much older than is suggested by most religions. The theory of plate tectonics explains why we find fossilized seashells on the tops of mountains, and these processes take millions of years to occur. And, Darwin's theory of evolution shows us how life could have evolved over billions of years, starting with the simplest organic units and ending up with humans, elephants, and douglas fir trees. These advances, and others, all weave elegantly together to make up the fabric of modern understanding.

This would all be well and good, except that those older religions are still tenaciously sticking around, advocating their old, outdated, and, quite often, just plain wrong ideas and explanations of the world. But so what? Why should we care? Well, one of the reasons religion has managed to stay around for so many thousands of years is that the successful ones are able to ingrain themselves in people's minds, and gain strong footholds with which to suppress competing belief systems. Ironically, in a process completely explained by Darwinian evolutionary theory, the successful religion is one that is adapted to its environment (in this case, human consciousness), and which is able to out-compete its rivals for resources (in this case, the time people spend devoted to it). The modern religions are, in a sense, creatures that have survived the test of time, perfectly suited to their environments and adept at fighting off rivals.

So here we are, in 2007. For the past 200 years or so, religion has been taking some serious hits. New scientific advances have brought new ideas to light, many of which directly conflict with those put forward by traditional religions. In response, we're seeing a backlash of religious fundamentalism against the progress we've made, and it is with this issue that we must take exception.

As I said in my opening paragraph, I used to think that holding my beliefs quietly was the best thing I could do for the world. I was wrong. And the reason is this. Christian fundamentalists are fighting to remove evolution from the science classrooms of America. Islamic fundamentalists kill countless people almost daily in suicide bombings in the Middle East. Religion is at the heart of many problems in the world. This is not to say that the world would become an instant utopia if we abolished religion. Religion may not even be the ultimate cause of much of the violence in the world, but it is a large factor used to justify acts that would otherwise be seen as immoral or irrational.

What causes me the most sadness though, is that billions of people around the world are living with misinformed views. A life lived in devotion to a god that does not exist is a life wasted. As I mentioned before in our Darwinian model, religion has survived the test of time not because it is true, but because it has adapted tools and strategies that have allowed it to be a good competitor for the hearts and minds of people for thousands of years. Perhaps the greatest of these tools is faith. The American Heritage Dictionary defines faith as "belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence." Already, this sounds like it's going to be a problem, and it's one of the ways religion defends itself against criticism. "I have faith in God," says the believer when confronted with a challenge to his or her belief system. "Have faith, child," is a cliché often ascribed to religious leaders. If we stop and think about it though, faith really isn't a very good reason to believe in anything. If we are going to believe based on faith alone, by what criteria are we to distinguish between what is real and what isn't? We've already discounted reason and logic as prerequisites for believing in something. What else is there? Personal experience? Surely that is not reliable; individuals can be wrong. Second-hand experience? Even less reliable than personal experience.

I would argue that people don't so much believe based on faith, but rather on indoctrination. If faith was truly the basis of a person's belief, how would that person know what to have faith in? To ask the question a different way, why believe in God as opposed to any other cosmic being. Why not unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters? Because, that is not what people are told to believe in. People believe what they are taught to believe, and when they are challenged, they are told to have faith. A Christian would call you crazy if you said you had faith in the existence of unicorns, but wouldn't hesitate to expound upon the benefits of faith in God.

And that brings me to the most despicable aspect of religion: the indoctrination of children. Pouncing upon children when they are young and impressionable, raising them to follow unquestioningly the doctrine of their religion, is a crime. Children should be raised with no beliefs forced upon them, and once they are old enough to make an informed decision they should be allowed to choose for themselves. After all, if religion is so good and so true, the informed person would decide to be religious. There would be nothing for religion to fear.

This is why I choose to be an evangelical atheist, and why I have started this blog. Stay tuned to hear about all the crazy trouble I'm certain to get myself into!

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